Read The road Online

Authors: Cormac McCarthy

Tags: #FICTION / General, #Fiction / Literary, #Fiction / Science Fiction / General, #Fiction / Classics, #FICTION / Fantasy / General, #United States, #Fiction / Action & Adventure, #Voyages and travels/ Fiction, #Robinsonades, #Fathers and Sons, #Survival skills, #Regression (Civilization), #Voyages And Travels, #Fathers and sons/ Fiction, #Regression (Civilization)/ Fiction

The road (5 page)

BOOK: The road
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In the morning he lay looking up at the clay nests
that swallows had built in the corners under the bridge. He looked at the boy but
the boy had turned away and lay staring out at the river. There's nothing we
could have done. He didnt answer. He's going to die. We cant share what we have
or we'll die too. I know. So when are you going to talk to me again? I'm
talking now. Are you sure? Yes.

Okay. Okay.

 

They stood on the far shore of a river and called
to him. Tattered gods slouching in their rags across the waste. Trekking the
dried floor of a mineral sea where it lay cracked and broken like a fallen
plate. Paths of feral fire in the coagulate sands. The figures faded in the
distance. He woke and lay in the dark.

 

The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light
and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is
it? she said. He didnt answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the
lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the
windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and
then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the
doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand.
What is it? she said. What is happening? I dont know. Why are you taking a
bath? I'm not.

 

Once in those early years he'd wakened in a barren
wood and lay listening to flocks of migratory birds overhead in that bitter
dark. Their half muted crankings miles above where they circled the earth as
senselessly as insects trooping the rim of a bowl. He wished them godspeed till
they were gone. He never heard them again.

 

He'd a deck of cards he found in a bureau drawer
in a house and the cards were worn and spindled and the two of clubs was
missing but still they played sometimes by firelight wrapped in their blankets.
He tried to remember the rules of childhood games. Old Maid. Some version of
Whist. He was sure he had them mostly wrong and he made up new games and gave
them made up names. Abnormal Fescue or Catbarf. Sometimes the child would ask
him questions about the world that for him was not even a memory. He thought hard
how to answer. There is no past. What would you like? But he stopped making
things up because those things were not true either and the telling made him
feel bad. The child had his own fantasies. How things would be in the south.
Other children. He tried to keep a rein on this but his heart was not in it.
Whose would be?

 

No lists of things to be done. The day
providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things
of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common
provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the
sleeping boy. I have you.

 

He thought about the picture in the road and he
thought that he should have tried to keep her in their lives in some way but he
didnt know how. He woke coughing and walked out so as not to wake the child.
Following a stone wall in the dark, wrapped in his blanket, kneeling in the
ashes like a penitent. He coughed till he could taste the blood and he said her
name aloud. He thought perhaps he'd said it in his sleep. When he got back the
boy was awake. I'm sorry, he said. It's okay. Go to sleep. I wish I was with my
mom. He didnt answer. He sat beside the small figure wrapped in the quilts and
blankets. After a while he said: You mean you wish that you were dead. Yes.

You musnt say that. But I do. Dont say it. It's a
bad thing to say. I cant help it. I know. But you have to. How do I do it? I
dont know.

 

We're survivors he told her across the flame of
the lamp. Survivors? she said. Yes.

What in God's name are you talking about? We're
not survivors. We're the walking dead in a horror film. I'm begging you. I dont
care. I dont care if you cry. It doesnt mean anything to me. Please.

Stop it. I am begging you. I'll do anything. Such
as what? I should have done it a long time ago. When there were three bullets
in the gun instead of two. I was stupid. We've been over all of this. I didnt
bring myself to this. I was brought. And now I'm done. I thought about not even
telling you. That would probably have been best. You have two bullets and then
what? You cant protect us. You say you would die for us but what good is that?
I'd take him with me if it werent for you. You know I would. It's the right
thing to do. You're talking crazy. No, I'm speaking the truth. Sooner or later
they will catch us and they will kill us. They will rape me. They'll rape him.
They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. You'd
rather wait for it to happen. But I cant. I cant. She sat there smoking a
slender length of dried grapevine as if it were some rare cheroot. Holding it
with a certain elegance, her other hand across her knees where she'd drawn them
up. She watched him across the small flame. We used to talk about death, she
said. We dont any more. Why is that? I dont know. It's because it's here.
There's nothing left to talk about. I wouldnt leave you. I dont care. It's
meaningless. You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I've taken a
new lover. He can give me what you cannot. Death is not a lover. Oh yes he is.
Please dont do this. I'm sorry. I cant do it alone. Then dont. I cant help you.
They say that women dream of danger to those in their care and men of danger to
themselves. But I dont dream at all. You say you cant? Then dont do it. That's
all. Because I am done with my own whorish heart and I have been for a long
time. You talk about taking a stand but there is no stand to take. My heart was
ripped out of me the night he was born so dont ask for sorrow now. There is
none. Maybe you'll be good at this. I doubt it, but who knows. The one thing I
can tell you is that you wont survive for yourself. I know because I would
never have come this far. A person who had no one would be well advised to
cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along
with words of love. Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from harm with
your body. As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with
all my heart. He didnt answer. You have no argument because there is none. Will
you tell him goodbye? No. I will not. Just wait till morning. Please. I have to
go. She had already stood up. For the love of God, woman. What am I to tell
him? I cant help you. Where are you going to go? You cant even see. I dont have
to. He stood up. I'm begging you, he said. No. I will not. I cannot.

 

She was gone and the coldness of it was her final
gift. She would do it with a flake of obsidian. He'd taught her himself.
Sharper than steel. The edge an atom thick. And she was right. There was no
argument. The hundred nights they'd sat up arguing the pros and cons of self
destruction with the earnestness of philosophers chained to a madhouse wall. In
the morning the boy said nothing at all and when they were packed and ready to
set out upon the road he turned and looked back at their campsite and he said:
She's gone isn't she? And he said: Yes, she is.

 

Always so deliberate, hardly surprised by the most
outlandish advents. A creation perfectly evolved to meet its own end. They sat
at the window and ate in their robes by candlelight a midnight supper and
watched distant cities burn. A few nights later she gave birth in their bed by
the light of a drycell lamp. Gloves meant for dishwashing. The improbable
appearance of the small crown of the head. Streaked with blood and lank black
hair. The rank meconium. Her cries meant nothing to him. Beyond the window just
the gathering cold, the fires on the horizon. He held aloft the scrawny red
body so raw and naked and cut the cord with kitchen shears and wrapped his son
in a towel.

 

Did you have any friends? Yes. I did. Lots of
them? Yes.

Do you remember them? Yes. I remember them. What
happened to them? They died. All of them? Yes. All of them. Do you miss them?
Yes. I do. Where are we going? We're going south. Okay.

 

They were all day on the long black road, stopping
in the afternoon to eat sparingly from their meager supplies. The boy took his
truck from the pack and shaped roads in the ash with a stick. The truck tooled
along slowly. He made truck noises. The day seemed almost warm and they slept
in the leaves with their packs under their heads.

 

Something woke him. He turned on his side and lay
listening. He raised his head slowly, the pistol in his hand. He looked down at
the boy and when he looked back toward the road the first of them were already
coming into view. God, he whispered. He reached and shook the boy, keeping his
eyes on the road. They came shuffling through the ash casting their hooded
heads from side to side. Some of them wearing canister masks. One in a
biohazard suit. Stained and filthy. Slouching along with clubs in their hands,
lengths of pipe. Coughing. Then he heard on the road behind them what sounded
like a diesel truck. Quick, he whispered. Quick. He shoved the pistol in his
belt and grabbed the boy by the hand and he dragged the cart through the trees
and tilted it over where it would not so easily be seen. The boy was frozen
with fear. He pulled him to him. It's all right, he said. We have to run. Dont
look back. Come on.

 

He slung their knapsacks over his shoulder and
they tore through the crumbling bracken. The boy was terrified. Run, he
whispered. Run. He looked back. The truck had rumbled into view. Men standing
in the bed looking out. The boy fell and he pulled him up. It's all right, he
said. Come on.

 

He could see a break through the trees that he
thought was a ditch or a cut and they came out through the weeds into an old
roadway. Plates of cracked macadam showing through the drifts of ash. He pulled
the boy down and they crouched under the bank listening, gasping for breath.
They could hear the diesel engine out on the road, running on God knows what.
When he raised up to look he could just see the top of the truck moving along
the road. Men standing in the stakebed, some of them holding rifles. The truck
passed on and the black diesel smoke coiled through the woods. The motor
sounded ropy. Missing and puttering. Then it quit.

 

He sank down and put his hand on top of his head.
God, he said. They could hear the thing rattle and flap to a halt. Then just
the silence. He had the pistol in his hand, he couldnt even remember taking it
from his belt. They could hear the men talking. Hear them unlatch and raise the
hood. He sat with his arm around the boy. Shh, he said. Shh. After a while they
heard the truck begin to roll. Lumbering and creaking like a ship. They'd have
no other way to start it save to push it and they couldnt get it fast enough to
start on that slope. After a few minutes it coughed and bucked and stopped
again. He raised his head to look and coming through the weeds twenty feet away
was one of their number unbuckling his belt. They both froze.

 

He cocked the pistol and held it on the man and
the man stood with one hand out at his side, the dirty crumpled paintmask that
he wore sucking in and out. Just keep coming. He looked at the road. Dont look
back there. Look at me. If you call out you're dead. He came forward, holding
his belt by one hand. The holes in it marked the progress of his emaciation and
the leather at one side had a lacquered look to it where he was used to
stropping the blade of his knife. He stepped down into the roadcut and he
looked at the gun and he looked at the boy. Eyes collared in cups of grime and
deeply sunk. Like an animal inside a skull looking out the eyeholes. He wore a
beard that had been cut square across the bottom with shears and he had a
tattoo of a bird on his neck done by someone with an illformed notion of their
appearance. He was lean, wiry, rachitic. Dressed in a pair of filthy blue
coveralls and a black billcap with the logo of some vanished enterprise
embroidered across the front of it. Where are you going? I was going to take a
crap. Where are you going with the truck. I dont know. What do you mean you
dont know? Take the mask off. He pulled the mask off over his head and stood
holding it. I mean I dont know, he said. You dont know where you're going? No.

What's the truck running on. Diesel fuel. How much
do you have. There's three fifty-five gallon drums in the bed. Do you have
ammunition for those guns? He looked back toward the road. I told you not to
look back there. Yeah. We got ammunition. Where did you get it? Found it.
That's a lie. What are you eating. Whatever we can find. Whatever you can find.
Yeah. He looked at the boy. You wont shoot, he said. That's what you think. You
aint got but two shells. Maybe just one. And they'll hear the shot. Yes they
will. But you wont. How do you figure that? Because the bullet travels faster
than sound. It will be in your brain before you can hear it. To hear it you
will need a frontal lobe and things with names like colliculus and temporal
gyrus and you wont have them anymore. They'll just be soup. Are you a doctor?
I'm not anything. We got a man hurt. It'd be worth your while. Do I look like
an imbecile to you? I dont know what you look like. Why are you looking at him?
I can look where I want to. No you cant. If you look at him again I'll shoot
you. The boy was sitting with both hands on top of his head and looking out
between his forearms. I'll bet that boy is hungry. Why dont you all just come
on to the truck? Get something to eat. Aint no need to be such a hard-ass. You
dont have anything to eat. Let's go. Go where? Let's go. I aint goin nowheres.
You're not? No. I aint. You think I wont kill you but you're wrong. But what
I'd rather do is take you up this road a mile or so and then turn you loose.
That's all the head start we need. You wont find us. You wont even know which
way we went. You know what I think? What do you think. I think you're
chickenshit. He let go of the belt and it fell in the roadway with the gear
hanging from it. A canteen. An old canvas army pouch. A leather sheath for a
knife. When he looked up the roadrat was holding the knife in his hand. He'd
only taken two steps but he was almost between him and the child. What do you
think you're going to do with that? He didnt answer. He was a big man but he
was very quick. He dove and grabbed the boy and rolled and came up holding him
against his chest with the knife at his throat. The man had already dropped to
the ground and he swung with him and leveled the pistol and fired from a
two-handed position balanced on both knees at a distance of six feet. The man
fell back instantly and lay with blood bubbling from the hole in his forehead.
The boy was lying in his lap with no expression on his face at all. He shoved
the pistol in his belt and slung the knapsack over his shoulder and picked up
the boy and turned him around and lifted him over his head and set him on his
shoulders and set off up the old roadway at a dead run, holding the boy's
knees, the boy clutching his forehead, covered with gore and mute as a stone.

BOOK: The road
12.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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